The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

By Christopher Redmond

Mailed on November 23, 2018

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Dear Harry Melling
Artist (“Meal Ticket” segment)

Dear Harry,

You, my friend, have a true Coen Brothers face. Take that for whatever it’s worth.

Some directors have a type (Hitchcock and blondes, for example), others have surrogates (Richard Dreyfuss in early Spielberg films), and others have troupes - or at least favourite players they continue to utilize. The Coens certainly enjoy the latter, frequently casting Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi and John Goodman, among others. The alchemy for why these actors are so often appropriate for roles in their films no doubt depends on a combination of creative and personal factors. But there is usually a unifying element to all the performers that helps the audience understand what underlying message the filmmakers are trying to convey. In the Coen Brothers case, with their often doe-eyed, dim-witted protagonists , that may not always be flattering to an actor’s your ego, but it’s nonetheless a testament to your talents.

In fact, in their new anthology film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, we’re given almost entirely first-time Coen faces (the only recurring actors being Stephen Root, and the once-before used Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs, who somehow feels like he’s been in every Coen Brothers movie ever). And yet the filmmakers had no trouble resting the entire emotional weight of the story “Meal Ticket” on you and your face. Truly, nothing else. You don’t have arms, or legs, or a name, or even dialogue in the film. That’s not to say you don’t speak - in fact, your character (credited only as “Artist”) is a gifted orator in the film, delivering impassioned monologues on a travelling stage. But when it comes to actually conversing or interacting with his travelling companion, played by Liam Neeson, well that’s a much more internal journey we’re asked to follow. And boy, was I ever along for the ride.

Considering the other segments bounce between the absurd (such as the titular “Ballad of Buster Scruggs” segment), the nihilistic (“All Gold Canyon”, with an incredible Tom Waits) and even the surreal (“The Mortal Remains”, which closes the film), it caught me by surprise that I allowed myself to get so emotionally invested in your story. And catching the audience by surprise is the go-to method of Coen Brothers storytelling. Quick, unexpected, and violent characters deaths have become a cliché as much as a signature storytelling technique of the Coens, and most of the segments in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs are no exception. Except when they are. Which makes those stories feel, well, exceptional.

This is your first time appearing in a Coen Brothers film, but I hope it’s not the last. It only feels rights that you and a few more new notable faces and finds (like Eric Petersen from “The Gal Who Got Rattled”) are woven into the future tapestry of their films. But don’t be surprised if you’re not - after all, they do love to pull the rug out from under us.



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